Archive for February 28th, 2012

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Belling the Cat by William Langland

With that there ran a rout of rats at once,
And small mice with them more than thousand,
And came to a council for their common profit;
For a cat from the Court came when he liked
And o’er leaped them lightly and caught them at will,
Played with them perilously and pushed them about.
‘For dread of divers dangers we dare not look about;
If we grumble at his game he will attack us all,
Scratch us or clutch us and in his claws hold us,
So that we loathe life ere he lets us go.
Could we with any wit his will withstand
We might be lords above him and live at our ease.’

A rat of renown most ready of tongue
Said, as a sovereign help to himself:
‘I have seen men,’ quoth he ‘in the city of London
Bearing bright necklaces about their necks,
Some with collars of skilful work uncoupled they wander
Both in warrens and wastes wherever they like;
And otherwhile they are elsewhere as I tell you.
Were there a bell on their collars by Jesus, I think
Men might know where they went and get out of their way!
And right so,’ quoth that rat ‘reason me showeth
To buy a brass bell or one of bright silver
Make it fast to a collar for our common profit,
And hang it on the cat’s neck then we may hear
When he romps or rests or runneth to play.
And if he wants play then we may look out
And appear in his presence the while he play liketh,
And if he gets angry, beware and shun all his paths.’
All this rout of rats to this plan assented.
But though the bell was bought and on the collar hanged,
There was not a rat in the rout for all the realm of France
That dare bind on the bell about the cat’s neck,
Nor hang it round her ears all England to win;
They held themselves not bold and their counsel feeble,
Esteemed their labour as lost and all their long plotting.

A mouse that knew much more as it seemed to me,
Ran forth determined and stood before them all,
And to the rout of rats rehearsed these words:
‘Though we killed the cat yet there would come another,
To scratch us and all our kind though we creep under benches.
Therefore I counsel all the commons to let the cat be,
And be we never so bold to show to him the bell;
For I heard my sire say now seven years ago,
“When the cat is a kitten the Court is right wretched,”
As witnesseth Holy Writ whoso will it read:
“Vae tibi, terra, cujus rex puer est.”
No man can have rest there for the rats by night;
While the cat catcheth conies he covets not our carrion,
But feeds himself on venison may we never defame him!
For better is a little loss than a long sorrow;
He’s the fear among us all whereby we miss worse things.
For many men’s malt we mice would destroy,
And the riot of rats would rend men’s clothes,
Were it not for that Court cat that can leap in among you;
For had ye rats your will ye could not rule yourselves.
As for me,’ quoth the mouse ‘I see so much to come
That cat nor kitten never shall by my counsel be harmed,
Nor carping of this collar that cost me nothing.
Though it had cost me full dear I would not own to it
But suffer him to live and do just as he liketh:
Coupled and uncoupled to catch what they can.
Therefore each wise wight I warn to watch well his own.’

From: http://www.historyguide.org/ancient/langland.html

Date: c1377-1379

By: William Langland (c1332-c1400)

Alternative Title: The Bell and the Cat; The Mice in Council; The Cat, the Mice and the Bell; Piers Plowman, William’s Vision Concerning Piers Plowman